Calls Mount for Dialogue with ELN

While talks on political participation continue in Havana between the Santos government and the FARC-EP, pressure for Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN), to come to the peace table has been mounting.

FARC-ELN Alliance Announced

Last week, the commanders of the ELN and the FARC, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (aka “Gabino”) and Timoleón Jiménez (aka “Timochenko”), respectively, announced that they had participated in a summit in June at an undisclosed location in Colombia.  The leaders analyzed past tensions between the two guerrilla groups as well as the strategic issues facing them both, and agreed to forge a new political alliance in pursuit of profound societal changes, and peace with dignity and social justice.  They recognized explicitly that “any solution to the internal conflict of our country must be approached through the path of dialogue” and underscored the “unavoidable necessity of advancing conversations with all of the Colombian insurgency.”

Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista  (aka "Gabino"), Commander of the ELN

Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (aka “Gabino”), Commander of the ELN                                                                                 (Photo from

The two guerrilla leaders also issued a  “Declaration for Peace.”  They noted that a political solution could not be merely a demobilization and disarmament of the guerrillas, but must also “lead to the resolution of the causes that generated the war” and guarantee a deeper democratization with full participation.  The Declaration proposes a National Constituent Assembly to help build the consensus needed for a transition to peace with social justice.  This is the same mechanism the FARC are proposing for the Colombian citizenry to ratify a peace agreement; the Colombian government has expressed a preference for a referendum mechanism.

These messages were echoed in Havana last week, where FARC negotiators urged the Colombian government to initiate peace talks with the ELN.  On Friday, July 5th, ELN commander Gabino reiterated the call for an “unconditional dialogue between the warring parties to alleviate the impact of the war on communities and society while a dignified, definitive peace is reached.”

Civil Society Leaders Weigh In

The FARC-EP and the Colombian government recognized that peace-building “requires the participation of all, without distinction, including other guerrilla organizations, whom we invite to join for this purpose,” when they signed their initial framework agreement in August 2012.  On July 4th, 2013, 100 leaders and organizations of civil society released a letter calling on President Santos and the ELN to make this participation concrete.  They wrote, “Peace without the participation of the ELN is an incomplete peace.”  The letter continued, “The ELN has been part of the Colombian conflict for five decades and must be part of its solution.”

In addition, the civil society leaders called on the ELN to cease its practice of kidnapping and to release its kidnap victims, including the Canadian citizen Jernoc Wobert, a geologist working for Braewal Mining company detained by the ELN in January of this year.  Wobert is believed to be the only foreigner currently being held in custody by the ELN.

Historically, the ELN has relied heavily on kidnapping to finance its operations, and this has proved an obstacle to successful negotiations in the past.  According to the Centro de Memoria Histórica, 30% (2,724) of the kidnappings confirmed in Colombia in the last 40 years can be attributed to the ELN, as well as 25% (8,725) of those where the authorship is not confirmed. (See my earlier blog on this topic.)

Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo and President Santos have made talks with the ELN contingent on Wobert’s release.  On July 3rd, President Santos had announced that the government would not speak with the ELN “until all of those kidnapped have been released and the crime of kidnapping has ceased”.

For the past five years, Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz has been calling for gestures to “humanize” the war in its epistolary dialogues with both the FARC and the ELN.  Massive protests in 2008 and 2009 pressured the FARC to announce the end to the practice of kidnapping and to release the hostages they held.  Efforts to exact similar actions from the ELN have been more sporadic, but appear to be growing.  (See the letter by former ELN leader Carlos Arturo Velandia (aka “Felipe Torres”).

ELN Responds

Santos’s call for concrete actions was not lost on the ELN.  On July 4th, the 49th anniversary of the founding of the ELN, Gabino announced the release of Army corporal Carlos Fabián Huertas to a commission of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Catholic Church, and the Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) in a rural area of the municipality of Fortul in Arauca.  Huertas had been captured in an ambush last May in Chitigá, in the Department of Norte de Santander.

Santos noted on Friday via his Twitter account (@JuanManSantos) that the release of Huertas was a “gesture… in the right direction.”

Talks with the ELN?

The ELN has expressed its desire to find a political solution to the conflict since before Santos took office.  Santos has remained open to exploring this option.  If peace talks were to move forward with the ELN, they would likely take place separately from the peace tables with the FARC in Havana.  Just as there are major differences between these two insurgencies, their peace agendas do not completely coincide either.  In the same way that the FARC has been obsessed with the agrarian issue, the ELN has long been concerned with non-renewable natural resources, particularly mining, hydrocarbons, and petroleum.  These issues were carefully excluded from the Havana agenda with the FARC, but may be more difficult for the ELN to ignore.

On the other hand, there are important convergences both with the FARC and with the government that could be explored.  While their positions on development models may be difficult to reconcile, common ground with the ELN may be found on the issue of national sovereignty, as well as regional development programs, the eradication of illicit crops, attention to the displaced, and the removal of antipersonnel mines.

The opportunity to pursue peace with the ELN should not be squandered. (See Lessons for Oslo and Havana.)  Dialogue and actions by both the government and the ELN are needed to build confidence and to construct a roadmap, agenda, and methodology for moving forward.  The release of the Canadian engineer and an announcement that the ELN will put an end to kidnappings would be important steps in building the confidence needed to pursue what is likely to be a complex negotiating agenda.

Failure to bring the ELN into a peace process will undermine the ability of the Colombian government and the FARC-EP to end the conflict.  If left out of the process, the ELN could provide a haven for FARC dissidents, move into areas that were previously controlled by the FARC, and grow stronger militarily in the wake of a FARC-government accord.  A comprehensive approach can help prevent such a scenario.  Civil society and the international community (two key sets of actors in previous ELN peace initiatives) stand ready to assist.

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
This entry was posted in Colombia, Gabino, Latin America, Peace Initiatives, peace processes, peace talks, Western Hemisphere and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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